YMCA Champion programs awarded 2 years of funding

Times Observer photo by Lorri Drumm Shirley Petko spent some time using the workout ropes recently as she took part in the YMCA FIREFLY program.

A single firefly flitting around with an occasional glow can capture anyone’s attention. But when that one insect, also known as a lightning bug, is joined by a swarm of his friends, they have the power to light up anyone’s life.

While there wasn’t a visible bioluminescence emanating from the Warren County YMCA on a recent winter afternoon, FIREFLY participants had nothing but glowing reports of the program that brings them together and keeps them active.

FIREFLY, which stands for Fitness Integrated Recreation Everyone Fun YMCA, is a fitness and fun program for adults with intellectual disabilities. The name also symbolizes the “little bit of light” that program participants bring to the facility, according to YMCA Marketing and Grant Coordinator Kimberly Slocum.

Slocum was beaming recently when she announced that grant funds have again been awarded that will allow not only the FIREFLY program to continue, but expand to other programs to meet the needs of more individuals, all of which are offered at no cost to participants.

The YMCA was recently awarded $74,716 from the Edith L.Trees Trust, a PNC charitable trust. The funds will provide two years of support for Champion programs at the YMCA including FIREFLY, the LEGO Play Group, SWIM — a small group session for children with special needs and Drum Fit for Kidz at the Warren Area Education Center.

Times Observer photo by Lorri Drumm Bill Dies carries a lap counter each time he walks the track at the Warren County YMCA as he takes part in the free FIREFLY program. Dies said he recently completed 15 laps around the track

Vicki McLaughlin said she has seen the difference the programs can make in the lives of the people she accompanies to the YMCA at least several times per week. McLaughlin is a community support professional with Bollinger Enterprises. For several years she has watched as the people she works with become more physically active and just have more fun.

“There’s a 72-year-old man who comes here and walks all around the track,” McLaughlin said. “If you try to get him to take a walk on a sidewalk, he goes about 20 feet and stops.”

McLaughlin pointed out a young man doing push ups from a platform on the floor. “If he wasn’t here, he’d just be sitting on the couch,” she said. When he finished, that young man seemed quite proud to show off the “guns” he was creating.

“We all really appreciate having the opportunity to take part in the FIREFLY program,” McLaughlin said. “It’s hard to find something to do in the winter. And you don’t have to pay for it.”

While fun and friendship may be the immediate results of the YMCA programs, the motivation behind their creation also includes long-term effects like longevity.

Times Observer photo by Lorri Drumm Justin Atwood spent some time using the workout ropes recently as she took part in the YMCA FIREFLY program

The mortality rate is five times higher for individuals with intellectual disabilities than the general population, according to Slocum. The programs can also help combat health issues associated with being overweight, she added.

The programs also provide a chance to overcome challenges that can be part of some people’s daily life.

Slocum recalled a family with a son who is confined to a wheel chair. The young man was never able to be upright without someone else’s support — until, with the help of a flotation device, he spent time in the pool. “He could float and be in an upright position on his own,” she said. “It was great to see that.”

Emily Eggleston proclaimed the swim class “literally a life-saver for many kids on the spectrum.” “My oldest son is drawn to water and has been practically from birth,” Eggleston said. “If there’s a puddle, pool or pond nearby, he finds it and jumps in.”

Swim classes “give kids, like my son, a safe opportunity to explore the water and to learn swim skills that could save their life,” Eggleston said.

Eggleston has seen the difference it makes when specific sensory issues are addressed. “It became clear pretty quickly the obstacles that he faced taking ‘mainstream’ swim classes,” she said. “Waiting his turn in a line of six to seven other kids is extremely difficult for him and many others with autism.”

“Following directions and even the physical ability to move both sides of his body in order to learn to swim is very difficult,” she said. “Sensory issues such as overcrowding, loud noises, babies crying and sitting in wet suits for short periods of time added to his stress. He spent much of the class either covering his ears, trying to jump in when it wasn’t his turn or just getting up and walking out when he’d had enough.”

Eggleston said she is very grateful for the hard work Slocum has done by “providing a much-needed outlet for special needs kids and their parents.” In addition to the swim program, Eggleston had high praise for the weekly LEGO Club and its director, Emily Wachter.

“Emily Wachter gave willingly and selflessly of her time in spite of an already tight work schedule and a family of her own,” Eggleston said. “She made it a point to be there every week so that kids with autism and other special needs (and many without) had a safe, fun place to go and just be kids for an evening.”

LEGO Club provides kids with autism, or on the spectrum, the ability to socialize, engage and work their strengths while challenging their weaknesses, according to Slocum.

“It continues to develop their fine motor skills and fosters social interaction,” Slocum said. “It also allows parents to make connections which makes everyone stronger.”

While the existing programs at the YMCA will expand thanks to the grant funding, Slocum also announced a new Drum Fit program that will be introduced in the Warren County School District.

Slocum presented the program to Shannon Linkerhof, health and physical education instructor over the summer. “It looked like an awesome program for her to include us in,” Linkerhof said.

“The plan is for the teachers and students in our Life Skills program to experience the program taught by Kim and her staff once each week, then I will use the equipment Kim is supplying us to teach the program to all the students here at Warren Area Elementary Center,” Linkerhof said. “I am excited to be a student as well. I am looking forward to learning a fun new program that my students will enjoy. Hopefully, we can later branch out and Kim can bring the program to more of our schools.”

For more information on FIREFLY or other YMCA Champion programs, contact Slocum at (814) 726-0110 or email kim@warrenymca.org.